Sunday, August 16, 2020

Review of Maurice Scully, ‘Play Book’ (Coracle, 2019)

Previously (here) I wrote about excerpts from this book (Plays, 2016) published by the now lamentably defunct Smithereens Press.  However, Coracle have put out Maurice Scully’s complete Play Book as a thick blue hardback.  

The pieces from the previous short chapbook are interspersed throughout the longer volume, though at least one or two have not made the cut.  Interestingly, one other piece (“Pattern”) has also been removed from its place in the collection and is relegated to an appendix, where it nonetheless appears in full.  We get the sense almost of a work still in progress, with moving parts, though on the other hand each printed text of course becomes fixed in its current form, well, until the next printing.  For example, the upcoming complete version of Scully’s Things That Happen (Shearsman Books) is advertised as including the author’s recent revisions.

But all of this is complementary to Scully’s work, which itself often reads like a graph of a mind in motion in the moment, observing the world around it/him, but getting underneath the representations of what it presents.  The poem titled “Pop” begins with a series of seemingly innocent images: “an apple / on a / windowledge”; “its skin – light – // flecks of blood”; “gold-green / beer cans” — but these also become strangely complex and abstract.  Around halfway through, the piece takes a turn, jumping off from the image of “the / carefully / tussled / hair of // an artist’s / head in full / career” to a critique of the publishing industry and the “street-fantasy / of realism.”

One of the major themes of the book (which I also wrote about a few years ago in relation to the shorter Plays) is Scully’s relation to or grappling with the modernist poets.  Previously I mentioned his signifying on Yeats and possibly Pound, but in the new book there are more overt references to Dickinson (often seen as a proto-modernist), Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, and others.  Some, like Niedecker and Stevens, would seem to accord well with Scully’s overarching approach, but sometimes he is clearly satirizing the tradition of twentieth-century poetry.  The book, after all, does have “play” in its title.

There are other *big* ideas here.  In “Panning,” there is the notion of debate and argument and its futility: “in the heat where you pile the arguments for / a to one side & b to another / . . . beliefs without bases solidly founded beliefs. . . .”  Finally, Scully questions the efficacy of logic itself as a means of knowing the world or arriving at truth/reality: “compare the flying pieces of the jigsaw / that each claims to be The One True Picture.”  But that is not actually the end of the poem.  Having dispensed with the tyranny of logic, of Enlightenment values, Scully counterpoints a radically different second section, a vision of the sap system of trees, their “conducting / vessels” — but almost bizarrely imagined through “x-ray eyes / a forest without its / supporting timber. . . / a colony of glinting ghosts / each tree a spectral sheath / of rising liquid in countless / millions of slim threads.”  And it goes on.  It’s an amazing image that combines lyricism and biology, both art and materialism, into a whole other kind of epistemology.

More than one piece is titled “Poetry” (NB: all titles begin with ‘P’), and it is the poetry itself that strikes me here and the more I read Scully.  Yes, his work is rich with philosophical questioning, and/or focused on the seemingly mundane details of life (which with Scully are never mundane) — but the more I read him the more and more I become amazed at his use of language, the ebb and flow of a long poem, its sudden turns and veers in thought, its delight.  Sometimes I feel as a “reviewer” I’m obligated to get to the big ideas, often this is agreeable to me, and at the same time I sometimes want just to enjoy the process of engaging with the poetry on the page, the sounds of the words, the alliteration, and yes even the word-*play*, which is perhaps even more salient in this collection than ever before.  Or, maybe it just seems that way.

Some of the “Poetry”s are satiric, but some seem truly to posit poetry as the preferred episteme: “the / core of shape, the blood of poetry – may be so for / you too; but I know it and, breathe in again! Money / honour, power – same old pancake.”  Is Scully using the phrase “the blood of poetry” straight-facedly here (this is the “Poetry” that appears on page 171)?  It seems likely.  The following piece, “Props,” confronts the possibility of good work being ignored or even “erased” by changing literary fashions, but nonetheless poetry remains for the poet in the writing of it, “the shadow-image of a pen descending,” finally here becomes a metaphor/image of an illumined plum, “from seed to tree to / flower to this. Taste it. It’s yours. Taste it now.”  “This” is the *thing itself* (the plum, oblique allusion to WCW? “no ideas but in things”?), but it is also the poem or poetry, and now it becomes clear that there is deep sincerity along with the parody.

There is so much more that could be said — Play Book is 176 pp. long (though titles get their own separate pages) — so many more startling, dazzling phrases, sounds, insights, but I will leave it here and simply suggest that the real joy of this book is in the actual reading of it.  Scully is perhaps seen by some as a “difficult” poet, but I don’t think that’s true.  You can just read the words on the page and follow them where they lead.

And: Soon to come (this autumn) is an edited collection, A Line of Tiny Zeros in the Fabric: Essays on the Poetry of Maurice Scully (ed. Ken Keating, Shearsman Books), which should do much to make Scully’s work less prone to “erasure.”  (Disclosure: I have an essay in this volume.)

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